Fred Downey, a Maidu Indian who for most of his life has been called simply Coyote, is a 69-year-old man, but the spirit of an 8-year-old boy has motivated him to walk a hundred miles this week, across the Sacramento Valley, through the Mendocino National Forest and over the Coast Range.
The little boy was Charlie Wright, Coyote’s great-grandfather. In 1863, when he was just 8 years old, Wright was one of the 461 Sacramento Valley Indians rounded up and forcibly marched under guard from Chico to the Round Valley Reservation near Covelo—and one of only 277 who completed the journey. The others died en route.
“I tell people that I do the walk for a tough little Indian boy who made the walk in 1863,” Coyote said.
This week, Coyote was one of dozens of people who undertook the five-day trek from Chico to Round Valley that began early Sunday morning (Sept. 10). The 11th-annual walk memorializes the 143rd anniversary of that first trek along what has become known as the Nome Cult Trail.
A celebration honoring the memorial walkers, organized by the Mechoopda Indian Tribe and California State Parks, kicked off the celebration Saturday afternoon at Bidwell Mansion and was attended by Indians of all ages from many different tribes.
Coyote’s personal history reflects that of his mother, his great-grandfather, and countless other American Indians before him. Through activism, hard work and positive attitude, Coyote said, he and other American Indians have learned to take pride in their heritage.
“When my mother was in school, no one wanted to be an Indian,” he said. “Now, everyone wants to be an Indian.” He raised his arm, gesturing at the crowd gathered on the Bidwell Mansion lawn.
Coyote was involved in the activist American Indian Movement of the 1960s and ‘70s, even participating in the historic 19-month takeover of Alcatraz Island that began in November 1969. The takeover was one of the most successful American Indian protests, as it brought the issue of American Indian rights to the attention of the government and the general public.
Coyote’s son, Jerome Downey, was also at Saturday’s event. In addition to the Alcatraz action, he said, his father also gave numerous lectures at universities and reservations across the country and was a driving force behind the landmark EPIC v. Johnson case, which protected old-growth redwood forests from being harvested.
The 1983 case was brought by the Garberville-based Environmental Protection Information Center in conjunction with the International Indian Treaty Council and three individuals, including Fred “Coyote” Downey. It stopped the Georgia-Pacific Corp. from clear-cutting 75 acres of old-growth forest in the Sinkyone area along the coast and required future consultation with the Native American Heritage Commission whenever there was evidence of American Indian historical sites in a proposed timber harvest area.
Coyote has suffered some strokes, so he’s slowed down in recent years, but that doesn’t mean he’s not still helping people. His cousin, J.C. Gallegos, is staying with Coyote at his home in Hulls Valley, near Round Valley Reservation, and planned on making the walk with him this year.
“Coyote will let anyone stay with him if they need to,” said Gallegos. “He just has two rules: no drugs and no alcohol.”
Gallegos said Coyote doesn’t get enough credit for all the good work he’s done. But Jerome says his father doesn’t need the credit, that he helps for a simple reason: He enjoys it. “My dad’s not in it for the rewards,” he said, “just the feeling he gets by helping.”
Coyote refers to that “feeling” when explaining the journey he’s led for 11 consecutive years.
“This walk is about the feeling—it’s very spiritual,” he said. “It’s not meant as a political statement.”
He prays a lot while on the walk and guides other walkers through the journey, mentally and spiritually, he said.
“We’re just retracing the footsteps of our ancestors, trying to erase the pain and anguish they went through.”
This moment of thoughtful reflection quickly gave way to mirth, however, when a woman handing out apples from a woven basket approached Coyote, who declined the fruit. “I would, but I left my teeth at home today!” he told her, his light blue-green eyes sparkling.
“There’s Coyote, telling his stories,” said another woman as she passed by.
Coyote looked up and laughed. “That’s what coyotes do,” he said.